Eleven a.m. and we shiver outside Oakland’s Amtrak depot. Outside because the depot, built in 1912, has been closed for repairs since October 17th’s earthquake. Fifty, sixty of us range along tracks’ edge, awaiting The California Zephyr.
Ticketed into a roomette for New Orleans via Chicago, three nights’ journey, Jack and I lean against a shopping bag and duffles in which we’ve stacked clothes, books, tapes, cassette player, lunch. We are under the spell of departure; we stare down empty track to the point at which parallel lines appear to meet.
Since summer we’ve titillated each other with this journey. Our talk has been by telephone — we live states apart. We’ve reminded one another how we’d heard, so many nights in the bed we’d shared, long-drawn-out train whistles moan at town’s edge. There came a time when the railroad threatened to bypass our red brick depot. We do not mention that I said, apparently teasing, “I intend to get out before the train doesn’t stop here anymore.” Nor do we talk about an early morning when without goodbyes, I drove to the depot, left the keys in my car, got on the train going west and never came back. (Six months later the railroad dropped our town from its roster of stops.) We’ve recalled, instead, a summer hike when dizzily, terrifyingly lost, we looked down below us and saw rails curve — shining — out of mountains and knew where we were.
Man hunched under backpack asks where we’re headed (he’s from West Berlin). “New Orleans,” we say. Our answer is and isn’t true. The train is our destination; we are our destination: we’re riding just to ride.
Zephyr due in ten minutes, we pace. Jack bumps up next a couple who speak in tense, low voices. We are drawn to watch them. His tweed jacket and her trenchcoat, their book bags, indicate recent student life. They lean on each other, holding hands (both wear wedding rings). She looks uncannily like now-dead poet (by suicide) Sylvia Plath looked when Plath was 25 — long in the waist, blonde, pale. Her cheeks flush; her eyelids puff as if she might have been crying. She rises on scuffed brown boots’ tiptoe, whispers in his ear. He frowns, brushes back his dark forelock, squeezes her hand. She winces. Rubs one scuffed toe over the other. We quickly look away, down the tracks. The snub-nosed diesel-and-steam-powered Amtrak engine, pulling silver cars painted with Amtrak’s red-white-and-blue logo, zooms toward us, its vibrations rising up through our feet, our knees, chests.
Weighted under duffles and our shopping bag heavy with wine and meatball sandwiches, we heave up on our car’s high steps and search down the narrow hall for our roomette. On both sides of the passageway, compartments face each other. We glimpse through sliding glass doors that front the roomettes our fellow passengers arranging luggage, settling in.
We find it. Tuck into a room fitted out with facing seats and between seats, a fold-out table and above the table a wide window out which we see porters smoking and people waving passengers goodbye. Far above our seats, we spot a rack where we stow our duffles. We set our lunch on the floor.
Train lurches, rolls. Henry, our porter until Chicago, introduces himself. A high, hefty belly fills out Henry’s Amtrak sweater. Grey-flecked burr tops his perfectly round head, his big eyes bulge, and although he speaks to us hospitably, even merrily, Henry looks near tears. First call for dinner, he tells us, we’ll hear at 5:30. Tucking behind each of our heads that white flat pillow that serves as the pillow of all transportation, Henry says when we’re ready for bed, he’ll make up our bunks.
Henry gazes from one to the other of us, as a babysitter might study potentially unruly charges, then reaches up, across Jack, briefly obscuring Jack’s face, and presses a button set into a panel of buttons. An electrified “ding-dong” sounds from down the hall. “That’s my call, in my room. Anything you need, push this button, and I’ll be here soon as I can. Okay?” We nod. Okay.
We unpack our cassette player, tapes, uncork a Gewurtztraminer, offer a toast. “To us.”
I ride backward, Jack forward. Our roomette feels playhouse cozy, a niche, nest (already feathered with bread crumbs). Between two walls, glass door (we’ve pulled the brown drape), wide window and us, there’s easy continuity: this room fits us the way skin fits. We stretch our feet, touch toes, grin.
The California Zephyr, a pamphlet next the table informs us, was named for Zephyrus, god of the west wind. Jack reads: “ Aboard the Zephyr, you’ll travel from ocean to mountain range to prairie.’ Over the next 2422 miles, we’re promised ‘three mountain ranges, three major rivers and two deserts.’ ”
We’re almost to Martinez — 30 miles in 45 minutes — before we begin, truly, to study what’s outside the six-by-two-foot window. Deep draws and gullies sprout the waste vegetation that takes over after bulldozers clear land. Jack giggles, “Lots of good places around here to leave off body parts.” I laugh. Jack frowns, ashamed, and then I am ashamed, and then in the muddle of our shame, we are redeemed by the sight of a white horse, tail held high, who picks his way through rusted wrecks stacked inside a junkyard.
Next the tiny Martinez depot, some dozen passengers wait. A grey-haired man, followed by greyhaired woman, leans on a walker, unsteadily stumps the platform toward us. His face’s left side droops, eye unfocused. Soon after, we hear footsteps and an excited female voice in the passageway, I peer out our curtain and see the man lurch unsteadily, the woman — surely his wife — gripping him from behind, by his belt. They enter the roomette across from ours.
Milky fog rises off Suisin Bay. A suspension bridge materializes out of haze; then a mothball fleet — ships from World War II, Korea, Vietnam — offers itself as sharp lines etched into fog. The train advances north, the ships emerge in sharper detail: 8 rows and 10, 12 ships in each row, rusted grey hulls fretted above deck with cranes and booms.
Our window frames the outside world. From our seats, noses near cool glass, images zip by serially. We are the camera eye, for a moment anything out there can be ours: settling ponds bubbling green scum, green-headed mallards and tweedy coots scudding a pond’s eddies, roughlegged hawks soaring into updraft.
The hawk, Jack assures me, is searching out a meal of warm mice. I ask, How does a hawk kill a mouse? “By grasping it with its talons and squeezing. At least,” Jack hesitates, “that’s what I think happens. I do know an owl will swoop down, grasp the mouse in its talons and fly into the air a bit and squeeze the mouse and the mouse will squeak — ‘eek’ — and then, frequently, the owl will drop the mouse and go to the ground and pick it up in its mouth and eat it.
“I’ve seen owls simply kill mice for fun — not to eat them. One of the summers in high school when I worked as an irrigator, a great horned owl would follow me over the fields. That owl would dive down repeatedly and in the course of a morning might kill several hundred mice.”
Suckers for scenery, gullible to the natural world, our eyes feast. “Ah,” says Jack, “white heron!” The car gently rocks, maternal under us. A second hawk dives down into waving grasses, another white heron floats through mid-air, then iridescent green mallard heads shine atop marsh. Starlings rise into blue sky. Wheels click on track, the train grinds slight grade to Suisin-Fairfield. At this moment, what we’d talked about weeks before comes true. The train whistle sounds. Across our compartment, we call “Whooee whooee” and do not mind one whit how silly, how high on what’s happening we are.
Sacramento Delta presents us with quilt scraps of varied greens. Light fog hangs low along the river, banks marked by drooping cottonwoods, eucalyptus windbreaks. This is Joan Didion country, she grew up near here. We have both read her first novel, Run River, whose background is Sacramento, city and river. Run River, I tell Jack, furnishes almost my sole knowledge of land we’re passing, “and because of the novel, I think of this land as perennially hot, 104 degrees, and believe Didion’s heroine Lily and Lily’s husband Everett are always here, Everett’s always just gotten the hops down, Everett and Lily are always drinking from the bottle of bourbon Everett always keeps by the bed.”
I don’t add and think (while watching the state capitol’s golden dome pass by, and then admiring beside the tracks a concrete block building on which blue letters read “California Almond Growers Exchange”) that Lily, after they’ve made love, is perpetually crying out, “Keep me baby please keep me’’ and Everett hasn’t kept her, he has not. He has lost her, and (as in the novel) she was away in some San Francisco hotel room and he was here somewhere, not far from this train window, drinking as if it did not matter what happened to Lily. Which was not true. It did matter to Everett.
Past Sacramento, hopper car after hopper car stacked with coal blocks our view. Where we had multimillion greens and highflying birds, where our eyes felt satisfaction, talked talk between mind and landscape, now there is hollow, chasm. I make myself look away from the window, look into my lap, look at my hands, at anything but these innumerable uncountable coal cars, and can’t. Then, as suddenly as the coal cars arrived before us, they’re gone. — We’re gone.
Jack points out high school bleachers, wooden risers, where “what formerly were called ‘bindle stiffs’ ” sit, “watching.,” Jack says, “a baseball game that doesn’t exist.” Looking behind me, I count 34 figures on the risers and then passing in front our window a park. A campfire flares, flames soar up transparent in midafternoon light. Dozen people, indistinguishable by sex under heavy clothing, huddle around the fire.
We leave the Valley and wind up Sierra foothills, over whose lower reaches snow has settled. (Amtrak pamphlet offers: ... between Sacramento and Reno the Zephyr climbs to Donner Lake and skirts along the 2000-foot drop of the American River Canyon, crosses the Sierra Nevadas, climbing to 7000 feet.) Grinding up grade, the train groans.
Is it — unaccustomedly — drinking wine in early afternoon, is it what’s been (is, still) between Jack and me, is it distance lengthening between me and what’s now my home that’s unsettling, saddening me? (Who can say why I left, why he did not come for me? He does not know the answer to the first question, nor I to the second.)
Tracks edge the Truckee River, and Jack enthuses over mistletoe hanging from leafless trees, coots lighting down on rocks along river’s edge. How odd to see all this outside our window and to hear, smell, none of it. “I wish,” I say, “we could hear rivers gurgle. Do you remember when you taught me to lay down by the riverbank with my ear turned toward water so I could listen for undercurrent?”
Our feet touch under the table, Jack rubs my toes with his toes.
Four-thirty, axles and couplings creaking and singing, our engine draws us to 3500 feet. Twilight stripes sky red, rose, pink, turns snow blue, and in hollows, turns snow lilac and plum. A mule deer, doe, huge delicate ears popped up, noses her way down to a stream, on whose riffle falling sun flashes. “She seems,” says Jack, “entirely unaware of the train.”
Over intercom, club car steward: “Complimentary strawberry margaritas will be served.” We glower. “In cans,” he adds.
Five o’clock, dark mountains and inside, yellowish light envelops us. Jack’s feet rest on my seat, and my feet rest on his. We’re warm as we’d be were we hens setting nests in a brood house. Our mutual odor — my perfume, Jack’s aftershave, leavings from his meatball sandwich, the wine, and now the coffee I’d rung Henry’s bell for — steepens. Across the hall, the elderly duo has left their roomette door open. We learn that they are headed for Chicago to visit a daughter. The husband is recovering from “massive stroke,” and the wife, who talks with Henry (who leans against the doorjamb of the couple’s roomette), says to Henry about her husband, “He’s in my care and doesn’t like it. He doesn’t like me, at all.” Husband coughs: hacking throat-mangling agonized cough.
Praying no one will sit with us, when we hear “First call for dinner,” we go. Opening the door to the diner, I am struck first by an aquarium light flooding down over two rows of tables for four. I listen. Something’s missing. This is what it is: Amtrak uses plastic tableware; one no longer hears the swaying car rattle cutlery.
No luck on dinner alone. Hair dyed field mouse brown, rhinestone butterfly glasses astride long nose, mouth red and wide, she — Pam — maybe 60, boasts a firm body and under her beige sweater, an impressively high bust. Just retired, she tells us, voice nasal, from 20 years as a sandwich maker in a Bay Area junior high school. Husband was Army. Died four years after he retired. Five children. Oldest daughter, never married — a real pill — still at home. Eyebrows rise, raising nose, raising sparkly glasses: daughter has big problems.
Born in Pennsylvania. Going back for Christmas. Going to hit all the malls. “So, where you off to? Malls,” she continues, without giving us chance to answer. “Pennsylvania’s got great malls.” Waiter, black and tall and Southern in speech, apprises us of specials. He’s pushing pork kebabs. Pam engages him in talk about how this dish and that are prepared. He emits rapid tongue clicks, then leaning down into her scintillating glasses, says, “Baked, lady, the chicken is baked in an oven.”
We order halibut. She orders chicken. Says her daughter, the one who lives with her, goes to a head-shrinker. It’s that bad. She’s got to get away from her daughter. Some children. Are heartbreak.
Enough to say Amtrak coffee’s not swell but not bad. Same with food. Edible. Mashed potatoes, instant. Enough, too, to say that while we eat, we pass without seeing it, Donner Lake, site of Donner Party debacle, very spot where starving pioneers boiled hides and straps from wagons and then turned on one another. Enough.
At the table across from us, the young couple whom we’d watched outside the Oakland depot, the Sylvia Plath-like blonde and her mate, pick at halibut, gulp wine. She (I am already calling her “Sylvia”) has changed out of boots into flats, her eyes are no longer tear-stained. He lifts forkfuls of white fish and broccoli florets to his mouth and surreptitiously turns his eyes onto.her while he chews.
When we don’t finish our fish or eat the potatoes, our table-mate Pam scolds, “It’s all my years in that lunchroom.” Her daughter, she says, squinting across her half chicken (whose one leg sticks out at an acute angle that, in life, the leg did not know) “has big problems.”
Waiter clears away from Sylvia and husband’s table their two plates. Sylvia reaches across the table, touches her husband’s hand, which he clenches and unclenches. Her wrist bears violet bruises.
The train has wound slowly down from Donner Pass to Reno. We’ve dragged our cassette player out onto the floor. Mighty Clouds of Joy harmonize — “I can fly higher than an eagle, you are the wind beneath my wings” — when Reno blazons out of the night in neon: Harrah’s, Bally’s. We roll away, back into the dark. I press my brow against the glass: if you don’t look through the window, what you see is your reflection, you’re stuck looking at you.
Jack, preparing for tomorrow’s landscape, studies his worn copy of McPhee’s Basin and Range. The Great Basin, through which we are passing now and will pass tomorrow, is an arid region — “big desolate land, dry washes everywhere,” says Jack — between the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies, covering much of Nevada, western Utah, and the far edge of Eastern California. “The Great Basin,” Jack tells me, "is the largest sinkhole in the U.S. The mountains, trending north to south that pitch abruptly up in the middle of the Great Basin, trap enough moisture to generate small streams, and in turn these streams produce, among other rivers, the Humboldt. What little bit of water actually falls on the Great Basin flows toward its center. None flows out. So what rivers there are — the Humboldt, for instance — flow for short distances and end up as salty lakes.”
“I do, I do,” I answer when Jack looks up from his book, asks if I want to visit the club car. The walk between hurtling cars takes daring, and I grip Jack’s arm as cars’ couplings shudder, wheels hit track and in unsteady rhythm cars part and join and part.
Coaches’ overhead lights have been dimmed. Some passengers read. Some stare straight ahead, others through windows. Many are plugged into cassette players, thrum fingers in time to music, mouth words. Some sleep, heads slumped, skin sheened with * sweat, arms and legs akimbo, postures one sees in photographs of soldiers in bunkers under siege. To observe strangers undefended in sleep seems trespass, transgression.
Club car clamor startles us. Lights low, and at almost every one of a dozen tables (bolted to the floor) and benches (also bolted) and in swivel chairs that face windows (out which passes the western edge of the Great Basin), passengers drink beer and talk loudly, flirt. Car reminds Jack of vinyl-booth-and-plastic-fern-suburban-mall bar. He hoped for glamorous club cars from ’40s films and feels, he says, on the verge of a sulk.
Jack juggles ice-filled plastic glasses, Scotch, almonds. Tosses all onto the table we share with two men in their early ’30s. Both take trains because they fear flying (we would hear, again and again from fellow passengers how they feared flying, and so chose the train). Doug, a Sears appliance salesman in Davis, lost a niece on the Pan Am flight crashed near Lockerbie last year.
Sylvia’s mate slips a hand under blonde Sylvia’s turtleneck collar, massages her neck. Sylvia scowls, turns toward the dark window that shows her back, her face as livid oval. He smiles, his teeth small, even, white. The bruises on Sylvia’s wrist are finger-size.
This couple reminds us of us (we say this, out loud), years earlier. How we fought, struggled. I would advance, he would retreat, then he would advance, I retreated. We lived together for years, then have not lived together. Neither of us goes into that much detail as to how we live now. We discuss the children (long gone from home), the taxes we pay jointly, property, old friends. We do and do not miss one another. We have passed the fever point, survived sickness’s desperate hours. Sitting at this table, grasping glasses when the train sways, I ask Jack if he agrees with this assessment. He says he would not have put it so, but he does, he does agree.
That our compartment felt playhouse cozy I have already noted. But we did not guess, until we slid open our door and saw Henry had made up our bunks, plumped pillows, turned down our light to a burnt gold, caramel gloom, how fantasy rich this tiny space might be. Settled in the lower bunk, curtain pulled across the glass door, bare toes touching, while outside the window dark Nevada streams by, our roomette becomes the space that, in childhood, could turn into jungle or igloo or medieval castle enough to house any plot. We undress in the lower bunk, lifting arms and legs to slip out of jeans and shirts. I change into a nightgown and Jack, who’s never owned nightwear, wriggles into the navy blue cotton pajamas he’d bought the day before at Goodwill — “dead man’s pajamas,” he’s sure.
Web belt hooked to upper bunk keeps bunk’s occupant from being thrown. Jack belts himself in, and soon I hear his snore. From the stroke victim’s roomette, coughing, gagging, and choking attain operatic intensity, then subside into gurgles. I prop my head and pick out small towns’ small lights glimmering in darkness hurtling by. Train picks up speed, motion under me, rocking, rocks me to sleep. Four o’clock Jack clambers down; we cuddle spoon-fashion while the half-moon drops low over desert.
We meant to be awake in Salt Lake City. We slept, never saw the city. By the time we come to, come back from the bathroom down the hall where we brush our teeth and shower, by the time Henry makes up our bunks and restores them to seats, the train climbs the Wasatch Range. Our car pitches, tosses.
Jagged cliffs shadow profound gulches, and on distant snow-white hills, shining roads wind mysteriously upward. Jack goes for breakfast, Henry brings coffee, wishes me good morning. Through gap in our drape I see the grey-haired woman on her knees before her husband, his stockinged foot in her hand. She rubs the foot and he moans.
Nine-thirty, Mountain Time, when Jack, who comfortably eats breakfast with strangers, returns (aroma of bacon in his hair and flannel shirt) and reports in the diner most tables were taken, the chatter sounded “moody, murmurous, morning-after.” He ate “old-fashioned French toast, the bread in thick slices, eggy and moist, sluiced with maple syrup. Three slices of bacon.” Our dinner companion of the night before sat at the table behind him, telling again the story of her daughter. Sylvia and husband, he says, in answer to my question, weren’t at breakfast, no.
Nearing 7200 feet. The halfmoon — bleach white — curves in cloudless blue sky, the blue a pastel summer color. Hoar frost sparkles on alders, aspens, willows’ bare branches. Frost stipples bushes, sagebrush, and high coarse grasses. Alongside tracks, 30-foot inclines rise up. Jack estimates the snow as six inches deep. “Not much for this elevation.”
Animal tracks crisscross snowbanks. “Elk, deer, maybe some coyote, rabbit for sure live out here,” says Jack.
Three mule deer, rosy beige, gaze at the passing train from the cover of leafless trees. One turns his back toward us, tail lifted up exposing the flag, or tail’s underside, lighter in color than his body.
Crossing over Soldier Summit at 7200 feet, the very top of the Wasatch Plateau, we watch unwind behind us 11 silver passenger cars emblazoned with Amtrak’s red-and-blue logo, and then we descend into a canyon. “This,” says Jack, “is what a major river canyon looks like from down inside it. Eons ago the river was here and rock rose up and the river just kept cutting in at the same level. New young rivers are quite straight, but a river like this that existed before the mountains lifted up has kept its meanders.”
Price River turns its grey tongue of water toward the tracks. “I’d expected a little bit more out of the Price than this,” says Jack, “but it must race down through here in springtime. I see washes every quarter-a-mile or so along here. Land’s all been eroded out by the river.”
Land spreads out far from tracks in greenish-tinged leaden grey vistas scruffy with sagebrush and bunch grass, on which rests here and there a deserted frame shack, more hut than home. “Failed homesteads,” Jack sighs, adding, “I guess there was nothing much to do here but wait for God, huh?” I agree and cheer up again only when a black crow, the first bird we’ve seen in an age, lights atop a cottonwood.
Eleven-thirty, wanting people, we head for the club car. Between lurching cars (pitching now that we go downhill) we stop, breathe cold air. Above us the sky has maintained its utter pure blameless blue. Not a cloud.
At six tables in the car’s rear, you may light up. Two white-haired men in cowboy shirts drink beer at the table farthest back. Across the aisle from them, two women sip coffee. One, a bottle redhead who’s teased her fiery hair high into a corona, wears a sweatshirt whose sequins spell out RENO. Dora, her name is. Second is Pam, our last night’s dinner partner. Near noontime sun’s hard on their faces.
Dora says to Pam: “Don’t care what you smoke or what you drink or what you eat, you’re gonna die of somethin’. I don’t drink. Never liked it. Don’t party. If I don’t smoke my Carltons, what have I got?”
Guy across the aisle fingers the cowboy hat on his knee, leers at Dora. “If you quit smoking, you might take up partyin’. Way I’m feelin’ now, all shut up in this train, I wouldn’t be all against that.”
Dora nods to guy, garnering the compliment as her due, “Somethin’s goin’ to kill you. My mother, she lived clean all her life, died of a ruptured navel. So you never know.”
You don’t know. What’s gonna get you. All agree.
When an elderly woman, white hair uncombed, fits her gargantuan frame (draped in white and black print dress) onto the chair opposite us, sour odor rises off her. She has bought a ham sandwich. Her large loose mouth bereft of teeth, she gums bread, ham and noisily sucks Coke from the can. She’s traveling to Denver with her little sister. They’ve come from Reno, sitting up all night in coach, “Like this,” she says, showing how she gripped the pillow across her lap and let her head fall on the pillow’s top. She mimes snores. On the backs of her hands skin stretches tight over delicately articulated tendons, the skin is clear, fresh as a young woman’s.
Doors bang between cars, rails click, we talk, our table partner gums and sucks and we catch swatches from Dora and Pam’s conversation and watch go by out the window the folds and dramatic rises colored in iron-ore reds and above jagged crests, sky cold blue, remote.
Pam says to Dora: “My youngest girl, the one I was telling you about, she has an eating disorder. Her self-esteem went down and down.” Tears have popped into corners of Pam’s eyes, she wipes at her face, looks pleadingly to Dora. “What do you suppose causes her to do this?” Dora shakes her head, pats Pam’s hand. “I’ve aged five years in one year. She is trapped in self-destruction. You don’t know what it is to watch somebody kill themselves right before your eyes.”
Dora says to Pam: “Our son, the older one, God, he was trouble. Bad checks. He was brave enough to come to his dad and ask for help. His wife was on dope, still is. Which was why bad checks.”
Pam’s been widowed so long she doesn’t know if she’d want a man anymore. “My husband was just getting his life together, getting his retirement plans to come true, when he got MS — multiple sclerosis. It ate him up. He finally went though from esophageal cancer. Sometimes you just don’t know, huh?”
Wiping drooled mayonnaise from her mouth, the woman across from us says when she was young she listened to old women talk about dead husbands and she didn’t think there was much to it until she lost her own. “Then I knew. He and I, we used to sit in the parlor, and he’d read in his chair and I’d sit on the couch and crochet. Now I never crochet, naw.”
Dora lights another Carlton. “Bad things always happen in the winter, at least to me. My husband got diagnosed with vascular hypertension in '81. Late ’83 he got so plugged up he had to have his leg off below the knee. So, ’83, he had his leg off and then that same year our son-in-law was out in Wyoming living in a camper in our back yard. He had a butane heater in there and he was getting ready to make himself his breakfast coffee and the butane went up and he got blowed out of there. It was bad. We took him to Laramie to the burn center there, he had third-degree burns on his face, his chest, down right near his privates. Doctor at the burn center said he wasn’t burned bad enough for the burn center. Our second son, the one that’s a bull rider in the rodeo, he got himself in a fight with some black guy and he got shot right in his ball sack. That was fall ’83, too.”
Pam: “God, but you been through it, haven’t you?”
Woman across from us laughs, says — as much to herself as to us — “My God, I wish that gal’d shut up. Hell, wish my sister was in here, she’d go for that talk.” Toothless, fat, sour smell, wild white hair: this woman nevertheless looks irremediably lovely. She uses her hands as a woman who was well loved might, caresses her freckled arms as if her hands remembered for her how this husband touched her. I think: he is loving her still. I think: when I am old I would like my life to have made me able to touch myself like this. I think: there are lessons in life I would rather not learn.
Peevish voice over intercom: “Toilets are stopped up. Please, do not put disposable diapers in toilets. Please.”
One p.m., back in our compartment, we’ve crossed into Colorado, at DeBuque, pass the Colorado River, green and sparkling with ice chunks. “Nice easy canoeing water, a desert river,” says Jack, “not even any cottonwoods along the banks, sagebrush comes right down to where it’s been scoured. It must flood quite heavily in the spring and then drop rapidly, leaving no moist land in which seedlings could survive.”
Between Rifle and Silt, ice chunks ride the Colorado. A ten-foot-wide ice floe turns and spins midstream; green-headed mallards and brown hens light along banks. We pass a burnt-out area, limbs charred, trees blackened and then so close we look into his or her eye, a raven, carrion chunk clamped in its beak, spirals down past our window.
Three p.m., snow crowns Glenwood Springs’ brown sandstone tower-and-turret Victorian-era structures. Sylvia, mate behind her lugging suitcases, rushes toward a rangy grey-haired woman, who in turn runs toward Sylvia. They meet, the woman — surely Sylvia’s mother — pats Sylvia’s cheeks with green mittens, kisses her once, twice, on the mouth. Sylvia’s husband sets down the suitcases, puts out a bare hand, which the mother takes and shakes. Backs vanish into the depot.
“Hard to figure,” says Jack, “what was going on with those two, isn’t it?”
Ten minutes later we’re grinding up grade. The train groans and creaks, rises through narrow crevasses, and as far as I can see, up out the window, I see brown rock from which Glenwood Springs structures were built. Only domestic touch: found-wood fences, cottonwood saplings on which three strands of barbed wire stretch. We brush intimately next and creep between rock outcrop ascents, up and up.
A Western movie from our childhood is what the landscape becomes. Plot turns upon vice and virtue, black hats and white, a brunette dance-hall vixen and blonde rancher’s daughter. I am not sure, am never sure, virtue will triumph, am always afraid that somewhere deep behind the prospect immediately before me, in a cold dark, I will hear the heart break with the crack of pistol shot.
Five-thirty p.m., the falling sun colors curdled clouds in violent red while we share dinner with a retired schoolteacher from Santa Cruz. She wears a burgundy knit vest, plaid shirt, white hair in girlish bob. At the moment of the October 17th earthquake she was “tooling uphill in my ancient VW.” When the quake hit, she thought her tires had gone flat. She orders vegetarian lasagna. She takes the train twice every year, to Chicago where her brother lives. She’s been eating the vegetarian lasagna for three years. “Sometimes,” she smiles, “it’s broccoli, sometimes it’s zucchini squash.” She suggests we order the New York steak, and we do.
Making our way back from the diner through coaches, the smell hits us: garbage ripeness as oranges and apples and lunch-meat sandwiches, two days in the overheated car, spoil. As well, there are the unwashed armpits and crotches and feet, food digesting in upper and lower intestines and the sour eructations arising out of mouths from that digestion, booze seeping sweetish ketones out from pores.
Two hours later, the conductor announces we are ready to cross the Continental Divide, at 9200 feet. “Will all be downhill all the way from here to Denver,” he says.
Almost midnight before we leave Denver. I roll against the wall and sleep. Snow drifts through my dreams, and I wake in the morning in Nebraska. Sitting in my lower bunk, blanket wrapped around my shoulders, Jack snoring lightly above, I peer out the window. Snow drifts in around cornstubble, and at the edge of the cornfield, a coyote stands in full point. From the intercom, the conductor’s voice proclaims Omaha, “where the temperature — brrr — is -4 degrees.” Redfaced guys in billed caps stand alongside pickup trucks parked next Magda’s Cafe. From under cap bills, they watch the train pass by. Nobody waves.
Jack wakes up, hurriedly dresses to get to breakfast. I wander our car’s hallway, visit in the corridor with the wife of the stroke victim. Her husband wasn’t able to sleep all night and just at dawn, dozed off. Is it the train? I ask. “No,” she answers, her hand chilly on my arm, “it’s this way at home, too.”
In our compartment, Henry, round face filmed in sweat, gathers sheets, blankets. I ask how long he’s worked on trains.
Twenty-three years. Started out with Burlington-Northern.” Does he like his work?
"Don’t like it anymore.”
How long since he liked it? “Liked it the first 17 years. When it went Amtrak didn’t like it anymore. Once Reagan broke PATCO, it hadn’t been ever the same since then. It ain’t fun no more. Ain’t no fun,” says Henry wearily. "Ever since Reagan.” Was he surprised Reagan was elected the second time?
"No, I was surprised he was elected the first time. By the second time, it weren’t no surprise to me. Nothin’ about politics is. J. Phillip Randolph [founder, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters] would turn over in his grave if he could see what’s going on now. Sleeping Car Porters isn’t anymore a union, in fact. It’s in bed with management. Day of the workin’ man is over. Nobody cares about us no more. Believe me.” Henry, sweating heavily now, turns from folding the mattress onto the top bunk to me, rolls back his eyes, pins me with them. "Nobody.”
Late morning, we tune our radio into Council Bluff’s classical music station. After a Haydn symphony, the news broadcast: marijuana is most-used drug in Iowa, cocaine second.
Snow blows down curving streets dotted with brick two-story houses, snow covers cattle, barns, fields, trees, fences. Jack and I, silent, stare out onto white landscapes between Nebraska, through Iowa into Illinois. Hypnotized by snow, we fall as down deep in ourselves as snow falls around fence posts, fields.
Lunch we share with a bulky-muscled geologist in purple T-shirt and a long-haired anthropologist in plaid flannel. Geologist “prospects gold, freelance.” Anthropologist is a land developer. Roomed together in college, in Colorado, ten years ago. On their way to Chicago to meet friends. "Gonna party.”
Four p.m., outside Galesburg, train begins intermittently to lose electrical power. No lights. We stop, sit on tracks, snow blowing past windows. “Weather,” conductor announces, “going to make us late into Chicago.” He sticks his head in our compartment, tells us we’re likely to miss our New Orleans train.
Twenty miles from Chicago, four hours late, speed ten miles an hour, we drag past bright-lit (and empty of people) commuter stops. We accept, now, a night and day in Chicago, imagine beige bedspreads, stained carpet, and framed rural landscapes in the Quality Inn (where Amtrak, we’re told, puts you up).
In Chicago yards, fires, lit to keep switches warm, glow along dark track. Conductor peers into our compartment, tells us City of New Orleans waits on Track 26, we may catch it if we hurry.
Goodbye, Quality Inn, goodbye going to sleep under factory-painted green field, red barn, brown cow.
Shaky-legged we tumble off the Zephyr (whose rocking metal mothered us since Oakland) into cold’s sharp teeth. Am stunned. Can’t move. Pushed from behind, I start, one light-soled pump in front of the other, and march.
Talk about surprises. We’re ushered into a brown doom of a car— high-backed seats and almost every one of these seats boasting shoulders and head, eyes staring imploringly forward. Heat rises in visible waves. Car stinks like roadside zoos stink: of steaming carnivore bodies, potato chips and hot dogs and booze and armpits and urine.
Seven-thirty p.m. Should have pulled out two hours ago. No sleeping cars left, forget it, white-haired conductor says, he’s got 12 more passengers than he’s got seats.
Our eyes sort out of the sepia ruin the families and lone riders from Detroit and Chicago: Poles, Germans, fair-skinned dark-haired Scotch-Irish who must have, I think, come north from Appalachia, and blacks, many protecting hairdos under plastic shower caps.
Jack takes aisle seat at the head of the car; I get aisle seat behind him. Wayne’s my seat-mate. "Why-ine,” he says it. Born in East Texas 55, maybe 60 years ago, Why-ine’s football guard big. Looks like, smells like old-fashioned smokehouse ham. Brother works as a machinist in a textile mill. Goin’ to visit him. Wayne’s drinking beer. Already stashed two empty Jax cans in a paper sack by his huge feet.
“Twelve degrees out there,” Wayne tells me, pointing out the window where yawning porters, exhaling spumes of white breath, lean against empty baggage wagons. Wayne nods toward the front of the car, says, “The toilets are frozen up. So’s the water for the drinking fountain. Hell of a thing.”
These cars, he goes on to explain, were made in 1953, not a goddamn thing done since, except “re-upholstery and slapping on paint.”
So why didn’t Wayne (who’d ridden by train from Portland, Oregon) fly? “Fear of flying. I’m scared.”
“Toilet don’t work, water don’t work. What kinda train’s this?” The speaker, paper cup cone in hand, rocks back and forth by the water fountain. Five-eight or so — runty — hair dark and piled and oiled long on the sides, spiked on top, dark clipped mustache above a thin tight mouth, a navy blue sweatshirt on which is spelled out in white letters
WHERE THE WEAK ARE KILLED AND EATEN
Creases are pressed into his jeans, the hard crease you see put in prison denims, and the fabric hugs his buttocks, his bandy legs, flares above polished black boots.
“Guy’s a nut,” Wayne confides. “High on somethin’ and peakin’.” Whatever. For sure, when this guy turns and looks down the length of the car, his eyes burn us down. He fakes a right jab, left, another quicker right to empty air, shrugs, heads down into the next car. “He’ll be trouble,” Wayne predicts, “before night’s over.”
Train lurches forward, wiggles side-to-side through dark Chicago trainyards. Here too, gas fires flare at switches and wind twists flames skyward and snow drifts, blown by wind, and skids. We pick up speed, grind iron rims on iron track, rattle through the yard out into downtown. Wayne points out to me Sears Tower, whose illuminated windows light the snow that wind drives slantwise down through the dark.
Conductor punches tickets. I ask, again, about our roomette. Spit flies from his mouth: “See for yourself, lady, I got too many on this train now.” Huge woman, 300 pounds, black, shower cap pulled down over her hair, turns sideways to push past the conductor. Her hip bumps him. He wheels to face her. “Didn’t you ever learn excuse me?”
“He hates us,” Wayne says, about the conductor, and offers me a warm beer, which I refuse.
Jack makes friends with his seat mate. He, his wife, and their three-year-old son, seated across the aisle, have taken the train from Detroit to Chicago and will go on to New Orleans because his wife, he tells Jack, has “airplane phobia.”
The wife sits to the side, on one hip, pale clean-washed face turned up to the overhead light. Her brown hair is long. Her son, on her lap, sucks at the foot of a large gold cross on a chain around her neck. His flesh phosphoresces. He has beetling violent blue eyes. He digs his tiny fingernails into his mother’s soft upper arm. She winces. She turns, head hanging in the aisle, says to me, about him, “He’s hyperactive.”
Behind us, black Southern voices discuss the snow, which flies now through the dark. Talk behind me is about how cold it is, about what folks will do and who they will hang out with in Memphis, in Jackson, in McComb, in New Orleans.
Car’s too god-damned hot is what Wayne says and Wayne’s right. I’m sweating. Wayne is polished in sweat and smells commandingly of ham hocks. To see out the grimy window, dirtier than that window left behind in Chicago, I must gaze across Wayne’s vast plaid and brown Sansabelt-trousered belly.
Jack turns around, head hanging in the aisle: gravity loosens flesh at his jowls. He suggests the club car. “We haven’t had dinner, remember?” I’m up and have his hand, which is hot as on nights when he’d been ill with something he’d caught from the children and would reach for me out of fevered sleep. Between cars fierce wind blows snow, and we spot moment to moment through one-after-another tenement windows women at stoves, men and women bent over kitchen tables. We see half-buried cars. Neon signs past which snow falls. We smell snow, or think we do. We kiss each other’s cold lips.
Only two of the 20 orange-topped tables in the club car are empty. His hand on my elbow, Jack sits me down and then heads to the counter at the club car’s far end where three waiters sell drinks and sandwiches. In this club car tables are not fastened to the floor and roll with the train’s rolling. Jack returns with paper boxes stacked with tuna fish salad packed into croissants and two packages of Granma’s oatmeal cookies, two Scotches, two small bottles of white wine, and coffee and cigarettes. “Which are not our brand because there are only two brands for sale.” I unwrap a cookie, dip its edge into the willless coffee, and am not dissatisfied with the comforting nursery taste. I drink down, immediately, one glass of wine, then two.
We think to reflect upon fabulous train meals our parents told us about and do not have the strength. My stocking’s torn — when did that happen? — at the ankle. My skirt is irreparably rumpled. And now, I tell Jack, “I’ve spilled wet cookie on my sweater.”
Jack’s eyes deepen into their sockets. He takes his Scotch like cough medicine. Shudders.
Two young men huddle over the table behind us and at the table in front of us, three blondes ogle the two men. Near the snack bar, four black women wearing bright sweatsuits flirt with the waiters.
Guy in Detroit sweatshirt strolls past, a butt-pumping jailhouse walk. I’m convinced now he’s an ex-con. Carries two Buds to a table across from us. Sits with legs spread, back straight, leather gloves tucked in loops on his Army field jacket. Slips out of the coat, loosens sweatshirt from jeans and wide studded black belt, slowly strips off shirt one arm at a time. Down to olive drab undershirt. Arms bare. Lifts one arm, shows trimmed black underarm hair, flexes muscles, flexes forearms, pops tattoos that run down along both his arms onto tops of his hands. Nobody isn’t watching. He lights a Camel straight and grins and exhales.
Ten p.m. More Scotch. More wine. Detroit sweatshirt-stripper, two more Buds. He leans over table, ears plugged with ’phones jacked into a Sony radio. I ask Jack if we can talk to him and Jack says, “Why not?” and we pick up Jack’s Scotch, my wine, cigarettes, stand at guy’s table. He pulls out ’phones. We ask, “Mind if we sit?” and he stands, says, “Welcome,” says his name’s Pete, asks ours.
Pete and Jack shake hands. “You her old man, Jack?”
Pete tells us he’s 42, been living in Detroit, grew up in Connecticut, his father was a cement worker and he, Pete, was also — Pete grins — a cement worker. He went to Vietnam as a Marine — “landed in Da Nang in January 1965, left in February 1966. Now,” Pete frowns, "I’m a drunk.”
The tattoos look like sheaves of grain. “That’s what they are,” says Pete, spreading his arms onto the table. ‘‘Mussolini’s symbol, Mussolini said, ‘A bundle is stronger than a single branch.’ The sheaf on one arm looks so different from the sheaf on the other because two different tattoo artists did them. First in ’Nam, second in Philly.”
He reads Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Hegel, listens to Wagner. Nazism was influenced by Hegel’s dialectic, so he’s tried to read Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind. “Tried once to go to college, went to Wayne State for a few months, but intellectuals are almost all Jews, and Jews are patronizing, they live far from the real world, they look down upon the proletariat, on guys like me, cement workers’ sons. They rub our noses in the fact we’re working men.”
He’s headed back to New Orleans. Going to a Number Six Motel to dry out for two days before he goes to his friend EZ’s house. “EZ is a fag. Fag hairdresser. Lives with his mother, EZ does. We have a relationship, EZ and I, but not what you’d think. I’m no hairdresser, no ass-licking interior decorator, no fucking florist, no nurse, no nurse’s aide. No, baby, I ain’t.”
Beer on Pete’s breath and a stronger smell, welding torch acetalyne, reaches me. Pete searches my eyes, asserts his glance into my half-drunk gaze. Flag salute reverence in his voice, he declaims: “You goin’ to read about me in the newspapers one morning. I’m gonna be that loner white guy what’s had all he can take. It’s gonna happen. I’m gonna happen. I’m gonna walk into one of those French Quarter fag bars. I’m gonna kill me some queers.”
The train smashes through Illinois over deepening snow, wheels clacking under us. White-haired conductor and his assistant chew sandwiches, black girls sing in three-part harmony “Georgia on My Mind.” Wine comes home.
I begin to like Pete.
“Goin’ to New Orleans, huh? You gonna love New Orleans. I go to some great right-wing meetings in New Orleans. David Duke, the guy the news media’s sayin’ is a Klansman, he’s my man — debonair, de, de, de, de-bo-fuckin’-nair my man Duke is. Do you think Duke’s crazy? I think he’s great. Says he isn’t a Kluxer, isn’t Nazi, but I know that what he is is a Fascist.” Pete puts back his head, mouth open wide, and laughter pours out, crazy freakish baboon laughter.
Pete expects gargantuan economic depression. “I bought survival food.” He pins Jack with his eyes. ‘‘You know survival food?” Jack nods assent. Pete has on board with him, in checked baggage, 934 pounds of survival food, a survival food cookbook, and a bazooka — no ordnance.
Eleven p.m., people return to cars, leaving all but our table — Pete’s Camel smoldering in filthy ashtray — empty. I drink which glass? of wine and my seatmate Wayne pushes through the door, pulls a chair to our table, sits. His shirtfront and armpits are sweat-dark. ‘‘Fuckin’ hot in there, man, fuckin’ hot.”
Pete tells Wayne about survival food, the bazooka. Wayne rubs his brow with an Amtrak napkin. Pete says that one night, in Detroit, when he’d smoked too much crack— ‘‘You guys know crack?” he asks and we nod obediently — he had to go to an emergency room for intubation. ‘‘Was, you get it, choking to death. Had an AK-47 with me. Wrapped in a towel and stuck in a paper shopping bag. In the hospital they took the shopping bag, never even looked in it, I know, because in the morning when I got ready to leave, they give me back the sack. So I left the hospital, got back out on the street, ran into these three Negroes who said they were wanting to smoke some with me but really wanted to rob me, I knew it, and so I unwrapped the ol’ AK-47 and put it to their Negro noses.”
‘‘Bet they stood back,” says Wayne.
‘‘You bet they did, Wayne.” Pete pulls himself to his feet. “Wayne, baby, you goin’ to read about me in the papers. I’m that loner white guy who’s had all he going to take. I tell you, Wayne, I’m happenin’. I’m gonna walk into one of those French Corner fag bars.” Pete goes into a crouch that tightens his jeans at legs and crotch. He mimes shooting all of us. “Rat-a-tat-a-tat.” Jack strokes his forehead. Wayne grins big.
Pete retakes his seat, tells again he’s got 934 pounds of survival food and cookbook and bazooka. “But no ordnance, want to keep it legal, Wayne.”
Wayne says “Shee-ut, if we had ordnance, Pete, we could blow a hole right through the goddamn car, get cool air in here.”
After chit-chat about the heat, about where we’re headed, more talk about survival food, cookbook, Pete yells, “I fuckin’ hate cats.”
Jack moans, whispers. “I was a kid, we used to shoot cats.” Pete touches Jack’s arm. “22s?”
“Shotguns. Didn’t have to stop the car that way. Sometimes we didn’t even use a gun. Just clubbed them to death.”
Pete leans forward. “Clubbed ’em. You’re my man.” “Shotgun,” Jack’s spittle flies, “just blow a cat apart.”
To get back to our seats, we stumble through four unlit, pitching, clattering coaches from whose high-backed seats asleep faces, white and brown, glow and gleam. Open mouths, flared nostrils, heaving chests, pour out snoring, watery gurgles, coughing, groans, and sighing. Cars heave, our hips and arms hit elbows and shoulders and legs that, in sleep, slump toward the aisle; these limbs do not recoil when we bump them. Between cars, snowy Illinois’s below-zero air stabs my chest. My fingers on my bare throat are numb.
Wayne, eyes closed, rests his cheek against the window. His seat is let back as far as it will go and has his unshod feet on the footrest. I lean over to adjust my footrest similarly and am not immediately successful, Wayne reaches across my lap for the lever and brings down the rest. “So fuckin’ hot in here,” he says, and I agree.
Drunk. Hot. Across Wayne’s plaid belly I peer out as we pass a two-story house on a hill, its peaked roof snow-covered. One upstairs window is lighted and behind curtains a figure moves. The train rumbles under me. My head thrown back on the high seat, I slide deep into stuporous sleep and dream myself turning in a rustle of cool sheets, window open by me. Wayne’s hand is on my stockinged knee, he is with two fingers tracing a small circle above my kneecap. I pull myself up, pull down my skirt, whisper, “Knock it off.”
“You know you want it,” says Wayne. “You know,” and grabs my face in his hands, against my closed mouth, presses wet lips, pushes huge teeth.
I don’t know what I want.
I head to the women’s bathroom. I do not have the heart to waken Jack, and why should I (who have for so long now lived alone, managed on my own — Why did he not come for me?), what could he, would he do, and what does it matter, this Wayne? In the bathroom I read my watch.
Three a.m. Neither of the metal sinks will drain. In one, someone vomited. Toilet compartment’s door swings back and forth with train’s swaying and hits — bang, bang, bang — against the wall. Toilet hours ago ceased to flush. Urine puddles flow back and forth across the floor. Unwrapped, used sanitary napkins and disposable diapers are stuffed into the wastebasket. I look in the mirror. My lower lip is bleeding.
Bivouacked against the wall on a built-in orange vinyl-covered bench, I smoke cigarettes and from time to time get up, turn on the spigot in the cleaner of the two sinks, fill my palm with water and sip. The car rocks under me, sways. Maybe I doze. I don’t know.
First light gilds dark car’s dark interior, women visit the stinking bathroom. No one doesn’t mutter disgust or kick aside toilet paper wads stuck into the enlarging urine pool. Bloody napkins, feces pile up in the stopped toilet. Three black women, on their way home to Louisiana from Chicago, stand before the mirror, with bright-colored plastic picks comb out tight curls. No one pays me any mind, and I am happy among bosoms and hips and soft susurrating Southern voices talking about how they slept (poorly, because of the heat). They pass around skin cream; rose scent for a moment overcomes the stench. A young white woman, blonde high-blown hair caught in a goldtone butterfly barrette, edges into a space before the mirror, and the black women cease their talk, fade back from the smeared glass.
Between rattling cars, I peer in the window to our coach. Jack’s still asleep, Wayne’s asleep. Legs weak, arms weak, and hands trembling, I head for the club car through three coaches in whose seats sleeping faces (features wracked askew as in Cubist paintings) prop against pillows and windows. I sit at same table we sat at last night, Pete’s butts and ours overflow ashtray. Sky eastward stripes blood red and burgundies and deep orchid. West’s grey. I’m hung over, Stone Age hung over, pterodactyls stroll through dank ferns. A peroxided blonde mother opens her blouse and nurses her baby. With her free hand the mother points at her second child, a boy perhaps three, a plastic gun. She says to him, “I’m goin’ to blow yew away! Whaddya’ make o’ that?”
Overnight, we traveled 600 miles south. Frost tops grasses, cattails, and in deeper spots where moisture gathers, green grows. Near Memphis, we slow, pass through a suburb in which trimmed emerald lawns slope from colonnaded one-and two-story brick houses. Sun lusters grass, deepens green, stiff breeze shifts grass blades forward. From a white-shuttered house a woman of my age, pink chenille bathrobe flying behind her, blonde cocker spaniel leaping at her side, leans over at driveway’s edge, picks up rolled newspaper, smiles.
I think back to three days ago, Oakland’s green hills, wrecked depot. How almost nothing turns out the way you think it will.
Wayne, hair wet-combed up off his hambone forehead, enters the car, sees me see him, stops, looks at me. His tongue comes out and he licks his thick pink lips and hikes up his Sansabelts and walks past me to the head of the car. I won’t be routed out by him and stay, buy coffee when the snack bar opens at six. Out the window Tennessee goes by as scrubby pines and tarpaper shacks and turned-over fields that await cropping and then among more pines, I spot two white-tail does, frames far more delicate than the mule deer our train spooked high up in the Utah mountains. Motionless, demure, they stare at the train. I know I won’t tell Jack how I spent the night and don’t know why I won’t and I am not sure our being together would ever be all right even if we could go back to a time before that morning I left and start again, and because I cannot put my finger on what was wrong — with me, with him, more with me than with him — it will, I am trembling, only go wrong a second time. Which does not mean that it isn’t in its own way “love, baby.”
Eight-thirty a.m., we’re into Mississippi before Jack awakens. Holding hands we huddle in my seat, which even with Wayne making camp in the club car exudes Wayne’s hamhock reek. We press thighs and knees and clutching, our hands sweat. Jack has not shaved, and vague occluded pre-noon light strikes reddish hairs on his cheeks and chin. “I’d kiss you, babe,” he says, “but I haven’t brushed my teeth.” I lean over to comfort him, my head swims.
Train dawdles through planted forests of mixed deciduous trees, we go back over hangovers from the past. Worst we recall is a Fifth of July. We watched wrestlers on our black-and-white set, pale lucent bodies ceaselessly slipping in and out of one another’s grasp while bluebottle flies buzzed, settling around us on night-before’s party.
Ten minutes later we pull into Batesville, on whose town square circa-pre-World War II storefronts I read: Ebony Skin Care, Dress For Less, Elsie’s Flowers and Gifts, Fashion Gallery, McAdams’ Seeds, Feeds and Groceries, Stubbs’ Grocery, Clyde’s Fish and Bait. Fifteen minutes more, we’re in Duck Hill, then Winonia Hill.
We stop at Hammond, Louisiana, tumble of passengers falls into arms of parents, grandparents. Blonde who in club car early this morning nursed her baby and pointed the plastic gun at her son hobbles stiffly toward a woman who must be her sister. The sister takes the baby in her arms, opens the blanket and looks at its tiny face, and over the sister’s mouth, a smile spreads slowly.
Five miles from New Orleans. Slumped over at the back of our car, Pete sleeps. We are glad. Our talk with him the evening previous is one of those non-gravity-respecting antics you performed back when you took drugs that you don’t seem to be able to believe the next day you did do, or, Jack suggests, adrenalin suddenly gifting you with unnatural strength so that you lift up a car off the child that’s stuck under it whereas when before and after, all you’ve ever been able to pick up is a bag of groceries. “You know what I mean?” I nod and am not sure I do know. I want a bath, sleep, hot meal, in that order. We admit, all we care about is getting off the train.